By Anne Collier
A study published this month in the journal Children & Schools found that 45% of school social workers for grades pre-K through 12 “feel ill-equipped” to deal with cyberbullying, PsychCentral.com reports. I honestly think part of the reason for that high number is because cyberbullying has been so misrepresented and misunderstood in our society to date – represented all too much as a mysterious new threat to kids for which adults were wholly unprepared and have no known antidote. Isn’t that how you’re seeing cyberbullying portrayed in the news media? The thing is, the vast majority of the 400 school social workers in the study coauthored by Temple University social work professor Jonathan Singer know a lot about how to deal with bullying and a lot of other child and adolescent behavior that’s part of cyberbullying. They have not actually been caught unprepared.
Why don’t we, as a society and as youth safety advocates, empower parents, educators, social workers, everybody who loves and works with kids, by telling them they can deal with this challenge too, because most of it – most of the spectrum of behavior behind cyberbullying – is behavior human beings have been dishing out and dealing with since the beginning of time, now just online too. Why don’t we do a better job of telling what we now know from the research: that the kids most at risk online are the kids already most at risk offline (and social workers are educated to work with at-risk youth), that kids’ online experiences are very embedded in or a reflection of their offline lives (mostly school life, which takes up a lot of their time and waking thought), that a kid’s home and school environment and psychosocial makeup are better predictors of risk than any technology s/he uses, and that aggressive behavior online more than doubles the aggressor’s risk of being victimized online. Now that we know all that, there is a lot social workers can do in their day-to-day work with students. [Those findings are spelled out in the report of the first task force on which I had the privilege to serve, in a lit review by Andrew Shrock and danah boyd, PhD, and since updated by Samantha Biegler and danah boyd (pdf linked to in boyd’s blog here).]
Back to the study, which surveyed nearly 400 school social workers who are members of the Midwest School Social Work Council: It found that “only about 20% thought their school had an effective cyberbullying policy,” and they “felt that instances of cyberbullying were much more severe in middle school than in either elementary school or high school.” Dr. Singer told PsychCentral that the findings “show a clear need to account for grade level” in designing policies, training, etc. And open-hearted, nonconfrontational communication between adults and students, I hope, because it gets more granular than grade level! [See also “Educators’ Guide to Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats at the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use” and this link for much more on cyberbullying here at NetFamilyNews.]